Thursday, December 26, 2013

New Year Greetings from the Past.

This card was to Sarah and Morris Gerstein from her sister Beile.  It probably has a family picture on the other side.

New Year's Day is January the first.  However, for many people in other parts of the world, the new year began at different months of the year.  For many ancient people, the new year began in the spring since it was the beginning of the agricultural year. 
For Jewish people, the new year, Rosh Hashanah is celebrated in the autumn, usually in the month of September--which was at the end of the agricultural year. Apples dipped in honey is traditionally served at Rosh Hashanah dinners. 

 Many Jewish families still send New Year cards today.  Sarah Schwartz Gerstein, my father- in-law David Gerstein's mother, sent these cards with her children's pictures to commemorate Rosh Hashanah about 100 years ago.  There is a lot of similarity to holiday cards sent today.

David was born in 1909, Rose in1912 and Philip in 1913. Philip may be wearing the same sailor suit that David wore a few years earlier.  The card may be from 1916.

The Gerstein children in another pose--possibly the same year as the card above.

This the oldest card, Rose is a baby, it may be from 1914.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas in Ukraine--100 Years Ago.

Christmas Eve Dinner in Canada, 1965

I have never been to Ukraine, my parents never went either.  I have to rely on what I have read--and I am very lucky that my late cousin, Julia Lawryk wrote an oral history of her mother, my great aunt, Katherine Rychly Pylatuik's life.  This is a great source of information about what life was like for my ancestors in Halachyna, (Galicia) 100 years ago.

Christmas and Easter were the most important religious holidays in Ukraine.  The Christmas season began with St Nicholas day, which was celebrated on December 18, according to the Julian calendar--which the Greek Catholic Church used at that time.  St. Nicholas visited the homes of the villages, bringing something for the children.  It was nothing like our Christmas because many of the people were poor and couldn't afford to buy anything for the children. I remember a visit from St Nicholas at the home of my grandmother in St Paul, MN. I was a little girl, and heard the talk of St Nicholas coming to the house, but when I saw him, I was so frightened that I started to cry.

Christmas in Ukraine was celebrated on January 7.  It was a major religious holiday, with a few traditional practices.  According to Katherine Pylatuik, instead of a Christmas tree, each family in the village made a "sneep"  which was a bundle of rye stems, tied up with a ribbon and decorated with flowers.  It was placed in a corner of the house and remained there for the holiday season. This bundle is also called a "did" or "didukh" in other areas of Ukraine.
The people went to church on Christmas Eve, then went home for a special meal.  The Holy Eve (Svyata Vechera) supper consisted of twelve courses, no meat was served.  The first course of the meal was kutia, a mixture of wheat, honey and poppy seeds, which was followed by borscht--beet soup, The third course was fish, then varenyky, known to Americans as perogi.  Kolach, a special bread,  served as stack of three braided round loaves, with a candle in  the top loaf. came next, followed by stuffed cabbage or holubtsi was served. Small stuffed buns and poppy seed  were also presented. Every course had symbolic importance.

Painting by Yaroslava Surmach Mills, showing carolers outside a home in Ukraine.

After the meal, the children and teenagers would go caroling in the village. My Aunt Katherine remembers caroling fondly.  The carolers would call on the houses in the village, one person would carry a pole with a star on top, represented the star of Bethlehem.  One person would carry a bag for the anticipated treats.  Traditionally, one person would dress as a goat. If a villager did not want the carolers to visit, they would knock on the windows as a signal for the carolers to go away.  Other families would invited them in, and the carolers would sing a song for every member of the family--even the youngest child.  Sometimes they  would present a skit which involved the goat.   When they finished singing, treats would be given to the carolers. The caroling ended with a short poem expressing well wishes for the family.  Katherine said that the memory of caroling always brought a smile to her lips and was unforgettable.

A postcard from the 1940's, showing carolers.  In the back of the group, you can see the person with the goat costume.

All the recipe cards are from a series of postcards published by the Surma Book and Music Company, New York, 1975.

"Ukrainian Christmas Traditions" published by risu, 5/1/2012
Christmas Eve photo from The Art of Cooking, Ukrainian Style, published by the "Lesia Ukrainia" Branch of the Ukrainian Women's Association of Canada, 1965

Katerina (Kasha) Autobiography of Katherine Pylatuik Lymar as told to her daughter Julie, 1988.

Friday, December 13, 2013


The Carol of the Bells wasn't  popular when I was growing up like it is now.  The Christmas songs we heard were the religious ones, like "Silent Night" and "O come All Ye Faithful" or the secular ones like "Jungle Bells" and "White Christmas".  Even "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman" were new.  I knew about "Carol of the Bells", but it was one of those songs that you heard once in a while in a Christmas special on TV.  I also knew that it was a Ukrainian carol--my mother made sure that I was aware of that.

Today, "Carol of the Bells" is everywhere--you hear it at least ten times a day in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's.  It is now a staple of TV commercials--either in the instrumental version or with new words written to plug a product. (Giva giva, giva Garmin, for instance).

It really is a fairly new Christmas carol--unlike "O Come All Ye Faithful", which is hundreds of years old, or "Silent Night", which is about 175 years old.  "Carol of the Bells" was first performed just under 100 years ago.  It was written by a Ukrainian Orthodox priest who was also a musician, composer, conductor, and teacher, who never saw the United States.  His name was Mykola Leontovych.  (1877-1921).  He was a famous musician in his day, and earned the nickname "The Ukrainian Bach."  He also is known as the person who composed the first liturgy (order of the service) in  the modern Ukrainian language for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Click here to hear Shchedryk sung in Ukrainian

Another interesting fact about The "Carol of the Bells" is that is that when it was written it was about birds.  It's original name was "Shchedryk," which refers to very old  pre- Christian songs,  a shshedrivka, that were sung to celebrate the New Year.  Its original words told about a swallow, which is an early spring bird in Ukraine, that comes to a landowner's house and tells him how rich he is.  The song was first performed in Kiev, Ukraine, in December 1916, and was an instant success.  The Ukrainian Capella, a choir directed by Alexander Koshetz, traveled throughout Europe performing Ukrainian music, including Leontovych's "Shchedryk."  Koshetz took the Capella to the United States, and "Shechdryk" was performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, in  October of 1921.

Mykola Leontovych on a stamp from Ukraine.

However, Leontovych didn't live to see or hear of the success of his song--he was murdered by a undercover agent of the Cheka--the forerunner of the Soviet KGB, on January 22, 1921.  Why was such a famous musician and composer killed by the Soviet Cheka?  Leontovych was deeply involved in Ukrainian politics and was associated with the very new and fragile independent government of Ukraine, which lasted from 1918-1922.  He was planning to leave Ukraine, and that may have played a part in his murder.

How did the song, "Shchedryk",  a song about birds, which was sung in the Ukrainian language, become the Carol of the Bells?  That was the doing of Peter J. Wilhousky.

Peter J. Wilhousky, (1902-1978) , a choral director and arranger, is the person who transformed "Shchedryk" into "The Carol of the Bells". Wilhousky was born in New Jersey in 1902, to Rusyn parents, Tte Rusyn people are a ethnic group that are related to the Ukrainians.  He showed a lot of early musical talent, and studied at the Damrosch Institute of Musical Arts, which became The Julliard School. He was known as a talented choral conductor, and eventually went to work for NBC, and the NBC Orchestra, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.  Wilhousky wrote a new arrangement of "Shchedryk," for  choral groups and new lyrics, renaming the song "The Carol of the Bells."  The renamed song was first performed in 1936.  Wilhousky's song caught on, and has been performed hundreds of thousands of times since then. There have been over 150 different arrangements of the song since 2004.  It has been used in movies and TV shows, such as  "Home Alone" and "The Santa Clause", and "Celtic Woman", and performed by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The Boston Pops,  pop music stars and groups.  Now that Wilhousky's arrangement and lyrics are in the public domain, the song is ubiquitous.

Click on the link below to watch the strangest version of "The Carol of the Bells" I've ever seen.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Kristallnacht: One Boy's Story--The Conclusion

Manny Klepper was only six years old when he witnessed the terror of Kristallnacht.  His home on the Paulinestrasse in Trier, Germany was ransacked by Nazis on November 8, 1938, the beginning of the Holocaust. Manny's grandparents and sister had immigrated to the United States in 1937.  Visas to immigrate from Germany to any country were hard for Jews to get, especially those wanting to immigrate to the United States.  United States immigration laws were very restrictive in the 1930's due to unemployment caused by the Great Depression, isolationist policies and anti-Semitism.

Manny's family was fortunate to have family already in the United States, and connections with clout who could help expedite their applications.   They left Trier in early 1940, traveled to Berlin to get their final exit visas and flew to Moscow.  The Nazis controlled Western Europe, so traveling to the United States via steamship across the Atlantic Ocean was no longer possible.  The only was to get to the United States was to go east, through Russia,which was a neutral power from 1939-1941.  Russia had a non-aggression treaty with Hitler at that time, but that ended when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.  Time was short, but nobody knew how short. 

The Moscow Train Station--the start of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
The Trans-Siberian Railroad was sometimes called the Tsar's Railroad, since it was built in the reigns of Tsar Alexander III and his son Nicholas II.  It was started in 1891 and finished in 1916. and is still operating today.  It links Moscow, St Petersburg and Kiev, Ukraine, with Vladivostok in the east. It also has links with railroads in China, Mongolis and Korea. The railroad is 5735 miles long  (Moscow to Vladivostok) and 6380 miles (Moscow-Pyongyang,  North Korea).  It takes eight days to complete the trip from Moscow to Vladivostok and crosses 7 time zones.

The Trans-Siberian Railroad used steam locomotives when the Kleppers made their trip.

At the beginning of World War II, the Tran-Siberian Railroad was a major trade link between Germany and Japan, the main product transported was natural rubber from South East Asia. 
A few thousand German Jews were able to leave Germany via Russia and travel to China and Japan between 1939 and 1941.  Some stayed in China for the duration of the War, and eventually immigrated to the United States, others came to the United States through the Philippine Islands.

The Klepper family traveled from Moscow to Korea, via the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  Their trip continued by bus through Korea, and by boat from Korea to Japan. They stayed in Tokyo, Japan, for a few days.

The USS America in 1940

They boarded the USS America in Yokohama, Japan. Manny said that since his parents were sick during the voyage, the crew entertained him and the other children on board.  The voyage across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco took five weeks.  They traveled from San Francisco to Chicago by train, arriving in the summer of 1940,  in time for Manny to start school in September 1940, which was his first day of school ever, since he was never allowed to attend school in Germany.